TV’s Most Unlikely Spin-Offs


Yesterday’s news that the powers that be at Breaking Bad are contemplating a spin-off series centered on Saul Goodman, Bob Odenkirk’s sleazy lawyer, was a bit of a head-scratcher. Sure, we love Saul as much as anybody, but he’s not just a supporting character (and thus, via precedent, possible spin-off fodder) — he’s also the “comic relief” on a decidedly serious program, meaning that Better Call Saul (or whatever it might be called) would presumably have a tone, style, and length altogether removed from its predecessor. It’d be a peculiar transition, is the point — but it certainly wouldn’t be the strangest spin-off we’ve seen. Examples after the jump.

Trapper John, M.D.

Running 11 seasons (despite taking place during a three-year war), M*A*S*H was one of the most successful sitcoms of the ‘70s, though its war setting and serious themes made it much more than a standard half-hour laugher. Still, there was something odd about the notion of taking one of its central characters, moving him into the present day, and putting him at the center of an hour-long medical drama. But that’s what happened in fall of 1979, when CBS debuted Trapper John, M.D., which concerned the current activities of “Trapper” John McIntyre, played by Wayne Rogers on M*A*S*H. Pernell Roberts took over the role in its older, more dramatic form, and while the spin-off line was tenuous (and the show’s producers claimed it was spun off from Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H movie and not the TV adaptation, so they could avoid paying royalties to the other series), Trapper John M.D. lasted an impressive seven seasons.

Lou Grant

Another case of a comic character getting serious for a spin-off, Lou Grant plucked Mary Richards’s boss from The Mary Tyler Moore Show and made him the focus of an hour-long newspaper drama. MTM had begat spin-offs before (her best friend moved back to New York to star in Rhoda, while her landlady returned to San Francisco for Phyllis), but they were in the same multi-camera, studio-audience, half-hour sitcom format; on Lou Grant, Lou moved to L.A. to take a job as editor of the Los Angeles Tribune, and the show took on serious topics and social issues. But, again, audiences were flexible; the show ran for five seasons.

The Brady Bunch Variety Hour/ The Bradys

The Bradys weren’t so lucky. After The Brady Bunch ended its five-season run in 1974, several spin-offs were attempted, each one failing more miserably than the last. The first came in 1977, with the notorious Brady Bunch Variety Hour, which attempted to transform the family sitcom into a cheeseball comedy/variety show, with the family moving to a beachside home next to Rip Taylor, singing and dancing and welcoming special guest stars. Somehow, shockingly, it didn’t work — even in the 1970s — and was cancelled after nine episodes. When a 1981 sitcom reboot titled The Brady Brides failed as well, the family’s exposure was limited to reruns for a decade. But after the surprise success of the TV movie reunion A Very Brady Christmas, creator Sherwood Schwartz talked CBS into giving the Brady clan one more shot. The spin-off he cooked up was, somehow, even weirder than The Brady Bunch Hour: 1990’s The Bradys was a straight-faced drama, in which the family wrestled with Serious Issues in an hour-long format (which also, incongruously, featured an occasional laugh track). Plotlines included May-December relationships, infertility, alcoholism, and a paraplegic Bobby (we’re not making this up), and critics snickeringly dubbed the show “Brady-something” after the current hit thirtysomething. It was cancelled after six episodes.

Beverly Hills Buntz

The long-forgotten Beverly Hills Buntz would probably be the closest precursor to the Breaking Bad Saul spin-off. It, too, was a half-hour comedy spun out of a serious drama. In this cast, the successful show was Hill Street Blues, and the supporting character was Norman Buntz, the ethically challenged cop played by Dennis Franz (who would tread similar ground years later on NYPD Blue). In a plot certainly inspired in no way by the similarly titled and plotted Beverly Hills Cop, Buntz had its title character leaving his inner city police gig to work as a private investigator in Beverly Hills. Those who remember Beverly Hills Buntz (and there aren’t many of us) recall it mostly as one of the participants in NBC’s ill-advised “designated hitter” programming experiment, in which shows were rotated into primo slots in the primetime schedule on a once-a-month basis. Surprisingly, it turned out viewers liked watching shows a little more regularly than that, and Buntz was canned even before its original 13 episodes had aired.

The Sanford Arms/ 704 Hauser

Creating a spin-off isn’t rocket science: you pluck out a fan favorite supporting character, put him or her into a new environment with a new ensemble, and wait for the magic to happen. But sometimes that’s not an option, and executives have to get a little more… creative. So if you can’t find a supporting character to build a show around, why not use a house? Yes, the idea of a building-based spin-off was attempted not once, but twice. Back in 1977, CBS found itself in the unenviable position of trying to keep the smash hit Sanford and Son going with neither Sanford nor Son on board; Redd Foxx left to pursue a lucrative offer to host an ABC variety show, and Demond Wilson wanted more money than the producers were willing to pay. Their solution was to bring in a new leading character, an old buddy of Fred Sanford, who bought their home while turning the rooming house next door into a hotel. Somehow, this whiz-bang concept didn’t fly, and The Sanford Arms was cancelled after four episodes. Sanford executive producer Norman Lear somehow didn’t learn the lesson, though. Years later, he sold CBS on 704 Hauser, a new show set in the Queens home occupied years earlier by Archie and Edith Bunker. The twist: it was now inhabited by a black family, the Cumberbatches (headed by John Amos, of Lear’s earlier All in the Family spin-off Good Times). Lear and his writers attempted to recapture the social commentary and shock value of their earlier triumph, but it didn’t land; 704 Hauser was canceled after five episodes.

That ‘80s Show

At some point in 2001, somebody at Fox looked at the stellar numbers for That ‘70s Show and decided it wasn’t the charming, charismatic cast or ‘70s nostalgia factor that had made that show a hit — no, it was the idea of setting a sitcom in an earlier decade, and then putting that decade into the title of the series. And thus, That ‘80s Show was born. But a similar title (and some of the writers and staff) were all the two shows had in common; this one was set in San Diego and had no narrative connections, making it, technically speaking, less a spin-off than a rip-off. Viewers weren’t buying; it ran a mere 13 episodes in spring of 2002. But its failure was ultimately for the best — the cancellation freed up leading man Glenn Howerton to co-create and co-star in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

The Apprentice: Martha Stewart

Like him or loathe him (and we lean firmly towards the latter position, thank you very much), the tough-talking, blowhard persona of Donald Trump was, and remains, the firm draw of The Apprentice, the weirdly successful reality competition show that he’s fronted since 2004. But NBC and producer Mark Burnett, eager to squeeze it for a bit more money and airtime, somehow thought people were tuning in just for the sheer adrenaline rush of a weeks-long job interview, and created a quickie spin-off starring Martha Stewart that aired concurrently with Trump’s second season. Both shows suffered: Stewart’s low-key demeanor couldn’t match the slow-motion train wreck that is The Donald, while Trump complained that the saturation of the show was hurting his brand. (Ha, ha, ha.) Trump’s Apprentice soldiered on; Stewart’s wasn’t renewed after its single, painful season.

The Golden Palace

When Bea Arthur left The Golden Girls at the end of its seventh season, creator Susan Harris did the right thing and finished off the show. And then she did the wrong thing by immediately creating a spin-off for the three remaining Girls, with the wildly implausible premise that Rose, Blanche, and Sophia decided to buy a cheap Miami hotel and operate it themselves, as retirees tend to do. Don Cheadle and Cheech Marin were added to the cast as hotel staff, but Cheech, Cheadle, and a big building combined were still no substitute for Arthur. The genius of The Golden Girls was in the character dynamics of the quartet, and with one of those characters gone, the show was like a table with a leg missing. The Golden Palace limped through a single season on CBS and was quickly forgotten.

Baywatch Nights

We all know that the reason people were tuning in to Baywatch for 11 seasons was the plotlines, right? And that the main question on everyone’s mind was, Hey, what are these people up to when the sun goes down and they have to put on clothing? Well, that was the shaky thinking behind Baywatch Nights, the syndicated two-season spinoff to the Pam-and-Hasselhoff smash, which found Baywatch cop Garner Ellerbee (Gregory Alan Williams) quitting the beach beat and becoming a private eye, since that’s what a guy with the cushiest gig on the planet would obviously do. Hasselhoff came along as well, somehow finding time to appear in both shows, but in spite of the presence of the Hoff, Baywatch Nights couldn’t match the ratings of its predecessor. For Season 2, the show’s producers decided what it needed was not more beach action, but more X-Files; Williams was replaced, Dorian Gregory was brought in as a paranormal detective, and the supernatural plotlines took over. It didn’t work; the show was canceled after that season.

The Scooby and Scrappy-Doo Show

Bringing in new, younger characters is the most oft-attempted method of revitalizing a flagging show — in spite of the fact that it seldom works, and more often reeks of the desperation it surely signals. But it’s one thing to add in a Raven-Symoné or a Cousin Oliver; it’s another thing entirely to rebuild the entire show around a new character. And it’s even more risky to do so when the new character turns out to be universally reviled. But that’s what Hanna-Barbera did in 1979, when they revamped the popular Saturday morning cartoon Scooby Doo to prominently feature the new character of Scooby’s tough-talking, hyperactive, and unbearably obnoxious nephew, Scrappy-Doo. To their credit, the stunt worked, and Scooby remained on the air (in various forms) through the ‘80s. But for many fans, The Scooby and Scrappy-Doo Show was the character’s shark-jumping moment.